The day the music (almost) died on Nantucket.
While many festivals remain canceled, postponed, suspended or virtual at least as far out as August, music venues on Nantucket have opened their doors and cranked up the volume to the delight of owners and music-lovers alike. Recent conversations with ownership and management teams from some of the island’s beloved music venues brought to life pandemic stories of survival, adaptation and resiliency, along with a sense of buoyant optimism about the “Roaring Twenties” on Nantucket.
At The Chicken Box, Nantucket’s premiere location for both local and national music acts, co-owner Packy Norton described a 2021 Memorial Day like no other. With the venue fully reopened and a live DJ primed to play, music fans flooded in after a long and difficult year. “People went absolutely ballistic,” he said. “I didn’t know what to expect. I didn’t know if people were going to come out, but it was crazy…good crazy. We ripped the Band-Aid off. We had three hundred people standing on line in the pouring rain for five hours.”
Last year, The Box suffered a brutal 97 percent decrease in revenue. Islanders may deem The Box essential, but the state and federal governments did not. Norton recounted his business strategy to keep The Box safe: “We followed the rules to a T. We believe in science. We never pushed the rules. Not once. For the safety of the staff—for everybody.” The Box had already been closed down for months to renovate the dance floor “all the way down to the dirt” when word came that Norton had to remain closed indefinitely. “It was unbelievably scary,” he said. “We had a whole summer of bookings. We weren’t essential, and there was no other business to switch to.” The Box was eligible for PPP loans, but only based on winter payroll. “We run a lean operation in the winter. We count on that volume in the summer.” Norton and his fellow co-owners John Jordin and Rocky Fox were forced to adapt. “We couldn’t call ourselves a restaurant, so we bought a food truck,” he said. “We built a beer garden outside in the parking lot.”
So far, 2021 at The Box is looking as good as 2020 was bad. The first national show featuring singer-songwriter David Shaw “sold out in under a minute,” with upcoming performances by visiting acts like Ripe, The Beat Drops, Joshua Tree and Marc Roberge of O.A.R., as well as familiar favorites like Foggy Roots. Norton plans to keep the beer garden, which is now run by B-ACK Yard BBQ and offers an expanded menu. He describes the pandemic experience and his employees with deep emotion. “The staff hung in there with us,” he said. “They were right there for us. We have at least six who have been with us for fifteen years or more—we are a family.”
Meanwhile, Cisco Brewers, one of the island’s favorite open-air music venues, met the challenges of the pandemic head-on, becoming a leader in the community-wide effort to keep people safe and employed. Bryan Jennings, Cisco’s chief distiller, described how the owners, management team and staff rose to the occasion. “We are an essential business, a core group that never stopped,” Jennings said. “We were wearing masks and were socially distanced, but we were together. We were concerned about loneliness and the mental health of our staff, but we were able to see each other, and we took care of each other. Cisco is very family-oriented.”
After spending the late winter and early spring making hand sanitizer for front-line workers, the Cisco team overhauled their operations for a partial reopening during the summer of 2020. As local, state and federal regulations continuously flowed in, “changing by the minute,” staff and customers adapted to strict distancing rules and a new point of sale system, while bartenders worked as servers and drink runners, all without live music. “It was a big change in culture,” Jennings said. “If you came to the brewery previously, there was live music, people milling around, and dogs and kids. So when things were opening, there were a lot of eyes on us. In that respect it could be a point of problem in transmission. We worked with the local board of health, and they all designed the guidelines.”
This May, when restrictions were suddenly lifted, Cisco brought in the local band Buckle and Shake to perform for a throng of happy fans, signaling the return of live music and a newer, safer way of mingling. According to Jennings, some of the adaptations may stay in place, providing customers with more options. “We have lots of tables, but people can mix amongst themselves now.” With an exciting lineup of local and visiting musicians quickly falling into place, the summer 2021 experience at Cisco Brewers is shaping up to be a memorable one. Sean Lee and Perfect Day will be joined by bands culled from “a huge bottleneck of acts lined up to perform.” Potential plans include a festival with the clothing brand Levitate and a multitiered Cisco Brewers tour for musicians who want to perform at all four business locations.
Back in town, Nick Nass, co-owner of Sandbar at Jetties Beach and or, The Whale, reflected on the strong bonds in the Nantucket restaurant industry made apparent throughout the course of the pandemic. “The restaurant community on Nantucket really has each other’s back,” he said. Like so many other businesses during the pandemic, Nass and his team had to adapt their business model to keep staff and customers safe. They faced a slew of challenges, even for a breezy, indoor-outdoor venue like Sandbar. “We are very lucky that we are outdoors, because people felt safe out here,” Nass recalled, “but there were plenty of obstacles. It gets really hot down here. Jetties Beach is the most volatile weather venue on the island. We just had a hurricane for Figawi.”
Thankfully, this summer, the Sandbar will see the return of audience favorites Jimmy Denny, Cranberry Alarm Clock and Jeff Ross, who, according to Nass, “has been here since day one.” With a regular, seven-day weekly lineup, Sandbar likes to facilitate relationships between musicians and fans. “We would like to have them all back,” he said. “We have a special bond with them. They are all part of the community.”
Also in town, teamwork and imagination delivered The Rose and Crown through the toughest moments of the pandemic. For more than forty years, “the Crown” has transformed itself from a family-friendly pub into a downtown nightclub on a daily basis, attracting locals and visitors with a combination of live music acts, DJs and dancing. But with popular events like the weekly karaoke competition nixed by COVID regulations last year, staff and ownership had to invent new ways to engage.
Debba Pitcock, The Rose and Crown’s general manager, recalls initially being short-staffed. “We were blindsided by the outside dining at first, because we kind of got thrown into that,” she said. “Everyone found out how to work together in a new way—everyone had to be a team and do everything. Bartenders had to wait tables. Servers had to mix drinks. I, as a manager-owner, was doing dishes and cooking.”
Without a nightly DJ and dancing as a draw, Pitcock describes how her charismatic staff helped her write questions for the “Adult Trivia Night” that replaced the Crown’s usual Halloween festivities in 2020. “The staff kind of became the entertainment in a way, and we made even more friendships with people than in the past.” When restrictions were lifted in May, fans turned out en masse for the first karaoke competition, and The Rose and Crown will now resume its tradition of presenting a steady stream of quality musical entertainment, including solo acoustic artist Julia Newman and the return of DJ Bri Guy.
After a year of so much stress, anxiety and uncertainty, the 2021 season on Nantucket is shaping up to be an epic one, with great music bringing friends and family together to heal as a community that now holds a greater appreciation for these things, having heard the deafening sound of silence.